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The Tricksters: Part 1

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

What bird was that? Some birds are harder to tell apart than others. Take the Blue Jay and the American Crow. Two seemingly different birds but from the same family—Corvidae. Or the American Goldfinch and the White-winged Crossbill. Both look different but they are also from the same family—Fringillidae. But what about when you happen to live in North Carolina? Then you are in the range for both the Black-capped Chickadee and the Carolina Chickadee. How do you tell them apart when they look so similar? In this article I will go through the differences of some of the tricksters. Down at the bottom of the article are the answers to which bird is which, in the same order given.


1. The Sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks

These hawks live in almost the exact same ranges just at different times of the year. So the question is how do you tell them apart? Here are some tips and before you go to the bottom see if you can see which one is which using the tips.

  • They Sharp-shinned Hawk is about the same size as a jay while the Cooper's hawk is bigger. You can't really see size difference in the picture.

  • The Sharp-shinned Hawk has a more square-shaped tail and the Cooper's tail is more rounded. You also can't really see the tails in the pictures.

  • The Cooper's hawk has a distinct white tip on the tail while the Sharp-shinned has a narrow white tip on the tail. Again you can't really see the tails in the pictures.

  • The Sharp-shinned hawk has a rather small head compared to its body and the Cooper's hawk has a rather large head compared to its body. You can see this is in the picture.

  • The feathers on the back of the neck and crown(the top of the head) of the Sharp-shinned Hawk are darker and can look like a hood while the Cooper's has a cap meaning the feathers on the crown are darker than the back of the neck. This can be seen in the pictures.

  • The Cooper's hawks eyes seem to be closer to the front of the front of the head while the Sharp-shinned Hawks eyes are closer to half-way between the front and back of the head. This can be seen in the picture.

  • The Sharp-shinned Hawk has an upside-down teardrop shape body while the Cooper's hawk has a more barrel shaped body. This can be seen in one of the pictures.

  • The Cooper's hawk has shorter and thicker legs while the Sharp-shinned Hawks legs look more like pencils and are longer compared to the Cooper's. This again can be seen in one of the pictures.

Now that you have the tips for figuring out which hawk is which try to determine which is the Cooper's and which is the Sharp-shinned Hawk.

2. The American Tree Sparrow and the Chipping Sparrow

Sparrows are some of the trickiest to identify but these sparrows live in almost the exact same ranges just at different times of the year and look almost the same. So the question is how do you tell them apart? Here are some tips and before you go to the bottom see if you can see which one is which using the tips.

  • The Chipping Sparrow is slightly smaller than the American Tree Sparrow but this is hard to determine in the field or the picture.

  • The wing bars(the feathers right before the lines marking the primaries) on the American Tree Sparrow are a buff color while the Chipping Sparrow has white wing bars. This can be seen in one of the pictures

  • Both sparrows have rufous colored crowns. The American Tree Sparrow has a rust-colored crown year-round while the Chipping Sparrow has a rust-colored crown in the summer and a brown crown with some rufous streaks in the winter. This is harder to see in the pictures.

  • The bill of the Chipping Sparrow, both upper and lower mandible, is the same color. The American Tree Sparrow has a yellowish lower mandible and darker, usually gray, upper mandible. This can be seen in the pictures.

  • The American Tree Sparrow has a rust colored eyeline, the stripe going from the eye out toward the back of the head, and the Chipping Sparrow has a black or dark brown eyeline. This can be seen in the pictures.

  • The breast plumage of the American Tree Sparrow is gray like the Chipping Sparrow, but unlike the Chipping Sparrow the American Tree Sparrow has a black or dark brown breast spot. This can be seen in one of the pictures.

  • The Chipping Sparrow has a gray shoulder, which is right above the brown wing coverts, and the American Tree Sparrow has a rust colored shoulder. This can be seen in one of the pictures.

Now that you have the tips for figuring out which sparrow is which try to determine which is the Chipping and which is the American Tree Sparrow.


3. The Carolinia Chickadee and the Black-capped Chickadee

These two chickadees are some of the trickiest to identify but these chickadees only overlap ranges in the Carolinas and hybridize in the overlap. So the question is how do you tell them apart? Here are some tips and before you go to the bottom see if you can see which one is which using the tips.

  • The Carolina Chickadee is slightly smaller and has a smaller head and shorter tail than the Black-capped Chickadee. The Black-capped Chickadee has a larger head compared to its size, but this is hard to determine in the pictures.

  • The Black-capped Chickadee has white on the outer sides of its tail while the Carolina Chickadee has a mostly gray tail. You can't really see the tail in one of the pictures but the tail you can see should give you a hint.

  • The Black-capped Chickadee has a mostly white nape, the back and sides of the neck, while the Carolina has a mostly gray nape. You can kind of see this.

  • In the summer and fall the wing coverts on the Carolina wren are more uniformly gray while the Black-capped Chickadees coverts are broadly edged with white. This can be seen in one of the pictures.

  • The cream and buff colors on the sides are also a clue. The Black-capped Chickadee has more noticeable buff under the wings while the Carolina Chickadee is less developed and therefor not very noticeable. This can be seen in the pictures.

  • The last thing to look for is the bib, the black patch under the bill. The Carolina Chickadee has a very clean line dividing the bib from the breast while the Black-capped Chickadees bib fades into the breast. This can be seen in the pictures.

Now that you have the tips for figuring out which chickadee is which try to determine which is the Carolina and which is the Black-capped Chickadee.


4. The Hairy Woodpecker and the Downy Woodpecker

These two woodpeckers look almost exactly alike and live in the exact same range. So the question is how do you tell them apart? Here are some tips and before you go to the bottom see if you can see which one is which using the tips. Male Downy and Hairy woodpeckers have a red dot on the back of their heads and the female has black.

  • The Downy Woodpecker is about 3 inches smaller than the Hairy Woodpecker which is about the size of a robin(9 inches). This can be seen in the picture.

  • The Hairy Woodpecker also has a longer bill than the Downy. The Downy's bill is about half the length of its head while the Hairy's bill is about the length of its head. Again noticeable in the picture.

  • The Downy Woodpecker rarely has a comma mark, which is the black line that extends from the shoulder to the breast, but if it does it isn't as developed as the Hairy's. The Hairy Woodpecker has a very noticeable comma mark. This can be seen in the picture.

  • The Hairy Woodpeckers tail feathers are completely unmarked while its smaller cousin has bars that give a spotted effect to the white tail feathers when seen at the right angle. This is not easily seen in the picture.

Now that you have the tips for figuring out which woodpecker is which try to determine which is the Hairy and which is the Downy Woodpecker. If you couldn't figure out which birds was which don't feel discouraged. This is something every birder has to work on. Check you guesses and see which bird is which. Stay tuned for The Tricksters: Part 2!

Answers:


  1. Left- Sharp-shinned Hawk, Right- Cooper's hawk

  2. Left- American Tree Sparrow, Right- Chipping Sparrow

  3. Left- Black-capped Chickadee, Right- Carolina Chickadee

  4. Left- Hairy Woodpecker, Right- Downy Woodpecker



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